WILMINGTON — Cold weather and COVID-19 didn’t keep the community from gathering for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day trash cleanup Monday.
Starting on the Seventh Street bridge, at least 50 people gathered for a day of service and reflected on equality issues, like voting rights, that persist long after Dr. King’s passing.
Gloved up and with garbage bags in hand, volunteers ventured as far as Fourth and Eighth streets to pick up litter.
The project was led by West Side Grows Together, an organization celebrating 10 years of service in Wilmington. April Pagliassotti, a member and event leader, said the city offers one of the most diverse communities in the state, with families that have roots going back several generations.
“Wilmington gets a bad rep,” she said. “But when you come here, get to know the people. You see very clearly that people really care about their community. And are working really hard to make it a good place to live.
“The cleanup gives people an opportunity to see that micro-level of our community,” she added. “Also, the cleanup brings people together that might not otherwise get together.”
Several Delaware officials also had boots on the ground downtown, including Gov. John Carney, New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer and U.S. Sen. Chris Coons.
“My least favorite thing is litter and spoiling our environment and the beauty of our state,” Gov. Carney said. “But cleaning up, at the same time, shows our solidarity around taking care of our community and how it looks and making it more attractive for visitors and for people who live here. It demonstrates that we care. Doing it on a holiday like today, where service is the way to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King and the work that he did, I think it is a great way to show community spirit.”
Sophie Phillips, Miss Delaware 2021 and an environmental policy graduate student at the University of Delaware, said it was important for her to get out in the community Monday.
“Martin Luther King Jr. was all about lifting up voices and helping people and making sure we have equity and equality,” she said. “Even if you’re not used to going to community events, or you don’t really know the community, it’s a great way to get to know people and understand a different part of Delaware you may not be used to seeing.”
Ms. Phillips is focused on environmental justice in her studies at UD. She said a community cleanup like this was an opportunity for education, which is greatly needed in underserved communities.
“A big part of that is actually taking the time to care and show that it’s not just about trash on the street. It’s about all these other community efforts that we could do to make the city beautiful,” she said. “Delaware is one community, and we need to take care of each other.”
Rob Pfeiffer, who has been a Seventh Street resident for 17 years, said Monday that it’s a “funny place” where everybody knows everybody, and it’s easy to get people together. But when he looks at his neighborhood, he can see that it needs love.
“To honor the people who live here now, there needs to be help for people to get into homes and bring better schools,” Mr. Pfeiffer said. “I like to see people coming out and engaging, and when you see the actual people who are supposed to be helping, the government officials, hopefully that incentivizes them to actually do their job.”
Mr. Meyer said MLK Day is time to give pause and take stock of what has been accomplished and what challenges are left in Dr. King’s dream.
“The state legislature is much more diverse in terms of gender, race and sexuality than it has ever been in our state’s history, and the same is true of our national government,” he said. “But it’s not hard to look right here in Wilmington and see that there’s a lot of work left to do. Health equity is at the top of our mind right now. How do we make sure that your race, your gender, your income level, your nationality, the neighborhood in which you grew up does not determine how long you’re gonna live? Life expectancy, infant mortality rates are still embarrassing when you look at them by race and by income level.”
He added that education and housing inequities, as well as environmental justice issues, are prominent in the Wilmington area. Though explicitly racist laws are dissolved, outcomes have yet to be equalized.
Voting rights laws are at the height of MLK Day conversations this week, with the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act on their way through the Senate.
The Associated Press reports that Senate Republicans remain unified in opposition to the Democrats’ voting bills. On Monday, President Joe Biden described their stonewalling as part of “a true attack on our democracy, from the Jan. 6 insurrection to the onslaught of Republican anti-voting laws in a number of states.”
“It’s no longer just about who gets to vote. It’s about who gets to count the vote. And whether your vote counts at all. It’s about two insidious things: voter suppression and election subversion,” President Biden said.
At the Wilmington cleanup, after collecting a full bag of garbage around the Seventh Street area, Sen. Coons said he was encouraged by the event’s turnout.
“If you’re going to remember what he was about, (Dr. King) was not about taking time off,” Sen. Coons said. “He was about throwing himself into every challenging issue facing the country at the time, from civil rights and racial justice, to peace and the conflict in southeast Asia, to the Poor People’s Campaign.”
He added that he is expecting a final vote on the two voting rights bills in Congress on Wednesday, but that he is not expecting a single Republican to join Democrats on either bill. He said this is unfortunate, considering that the Voting Rights Act has been reauthorized many times before with bipartisan support.
“That shows a real change in how voting rights are viewed nationally,” Sen. Coons said. “There are states around the country that, on the heels of record turnout, are changing their laws to roll back some of the things they did. Their justification often is that it was just for the pandemic, (but) the pandemic is not over. If you extended the days you could vote or the hours you could vote, or you put in place dropboxes, or you made it easier to vote absentee in 2020 because there was a pandemic, this November, medically vulnerable Americans are still going to need those accommodations to be able to vote safely.”
Gov. Carney agreed.
“We’ve had really historic turnouts in the most recent election, and that’s a really good thing,” he said. “We ought to encourage everybody to get out and vote. Even with the turnout levels in recent elections being as high as they were, we still have a lot of people who don’t vote. And some of that is they don’t think their vote counts, and if we just think about some of the issues that we struggle with today, certainly people’s vote does count.”
AP also reported that Dr. King’s eldest son criticized President Biden and Congress as a whole Monday for failing to pass voting rights legislation, even as 19 Republican-led states have made it harder to vote in response to former President Donald Trump’s false claims about election-rigging.
“You were successful with infrastructure, which is a great thing — but we need you to use that same energy to ensure that all Americans have the same unencumbered right to vote,” Martin Luther King III said.
Coby Owens, campaign advocate for Network Delaware and a community organizer, said that MLK Day is no longer about celebration but uniting.
“We’ve been struggling recently,” he said. “But we have to continue to work together and come and be united. And that’s one of the things going on right now in the city of Wilmington, whether it’s our housing situations, dealing with climate change from Hurricane Ida or coming together to clean up our neighborhoods. Either way, we’re still going through it.”
West Side Grows Together also typically holds a peace march and celebration on Martin Luther King Jr. Day but postponed those until Presidents Day, Feb. 21, due to COVID-19 precautions.
MLK Day events at the Delaware Art Museum were canceled Monday.